A recent article on the BBC education website discusses the situation of Kim Snape, 15, who took her campaign to study GCSE French to the Prime Minister and won her battle.
The teenager wanted to study Performing Arts, but was told she would have to drop French because of a timetable clash. She then decided to pay for private lessons but also wrote to Tony Blair, her MP and ministers, arguing that she had a right to study the language at school.
“The response from Lord Adonis came in a letter to local MP David Borrow.
He said: "Since September 2004, modern languages along with arts, design and technology and the humanities became statutory entitlement subjects.
"Schools must provide the opportunity for students to take a course in all four entitlement areas.
"An option scheme forcing a student to choose between a course in a modern language and a course in another entitlement area, excluding the possibility of doing both, would not meet the statutory requirements."
Officials from the Department for Education and Skills confirmed a pupil who wanted to study a language at school between the age of 14 and 16 should have the chance to do so and should not have to pay for lessons. If there were timetable problems, a school could make arrangements with another school or college.”
This idea sounds simple enough but it is a far cry from the reality dictated by the pressures on the curriculum to be inclusive, “personalised” and offer a vocational element to students of all abilities. Arrangements with other schools and colleges are also likely to involve studying a language in the evening or at the end of the school day, also competing with popular after-school activities like sports.
Another thorny issue is what number of students is needed to constitute a “viable” group. As the move to personalise the curriculum often includes streaming according to the students’ academic profile, this fragmentation can adversely affect optional subjects at KS4.
For example, if 15 students opt for French, 5 from the Gifted and Talented stream, 5 from the middle stream and 5 from the Special Needs stream, does this mean that no group can run at all? If only 7 students opt in one stream, is this viable? As there does not seem to be any official guidelines, this makes our subject very vulnerable to personal opinions often influenced by the proven severity of grading experienced by languages.
I remember being told about 10 years ago that video-conferencing was the solution, enabling small groups to work together with students from other schools without leaving their own school premises. The use of ICT to create specific school learning communities and support subjects like languages is an interesting one. The question is: Who is going to be brave enough to try it out first?